“Whether I’ll publish the story depends on whether others like it.”
Myself, January 2019.
I ended my last post prophesying that the decision about publishing the nearly complete manuscript would be based on my readers’ reaction to the story. This was not what happened. Instead, I collated more information about the current state of self-publishing, and then reevaluated my options. Here is what I’ve learned.
One of the oft-cited advantages of self-publishing is that it’s a low risk venture. Theoretically, it doesn’t cost money to a publish an e-book, and if no one sees or reads it (which is what usually happens if it doesn’t get any promotion), then there is no harm done putting it out there. Moreover, there is a chance that lightning will strike, and someone will discover and like a story by an unknown writer. The odds are negligible, but even if nobody will read it, the author has the satisfaction of knowing that they achieved their goal of writing a novel. And holding the printed book in one’s hands — well, it justifies some euphoria.
A deeper look into the realities of self-publishing reveals that the notion of “free” or even “cheap” is deceptive. Professional editing costs money, and so does the cover, and these are only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible part, which could stretch on and on and become a huge cost sink, is marketing. “Marketing is not an arcane art; it is a learnable skill based upon well-established and tested principles,” says Nickolas Erik in his “The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing” (the entire guide can be found here). It also says that “Marketing is relatively simple if you regularly produce books that your target audience enjoys.” But what if the author cannot define a large pool of potential readers? Or if they write slowly and don’t have a backlist of novels to offer? Then, marketing is remarkably difficult.
As it sank in that launching a standalone novel would be a time-consuming and costly endeavor, I had three options how to proceed:
- Publish and see what happens.
- Give the novel to anyone who shows the slightest interest and find out whether there is an audience for the story.
- Put it aside and write something else.
The first two options are more or less what I did with my debut novel, which I published in early 2015. Back then, new releases had much better visibility than nowadays, and upon receiving a warm response from beta readers, I was eager to see my book published. Without much expectations to recoup what was invested in editing and the cover (and without paid promotions), I didn’t mind to offer free copies through Goodreads and LibraryThing. Lightning did not strike, and the general lack of interest stung a little. On the plus side, I received several reviews and some compliments from people who knew me in real life. Although the book never recouped the expenses, in terms of personal satisfaction it was a rewarding experience.
I completed my second novel in February 2019, and sent it to beta readers. They liked the story. The next step was to contact an editor, but having learned something from trying to find a genre for my debut, I gave some thought as to whom I should offer the newest story.
Formerly, Kboards’ Writers’ Cafe had been a trove of useful information. Regrettably, it had changed owners in 2018, and a consequent exodus of experienced authors left the forum with little activity and not much updated information. I received some answers about genres, beta readers and targeting audience, at the new forum, Writer Sanctum.
Another place to look for distilled information are recent e-books about self-publishing. David Gaughran‘s Strangers To Superfans: A Marketing Guide to the Reader Journey (published in 2018) taught me that launching a book without a marketing plan amounted to letting in sink into the internet abyss. A newer version (third edition) of Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should (published in January 2018) confirmed that the publishing world had transformed while I was struggling to write the story. After reading several blogs and newsletters, it became evident that what had started as a low-risk opportunity to find readers has become a pay-to-play business. There are too many entrepreneurs and companies making money off selling services to indie writers, and too many writers investing in marketing yet hardly selling any books. In this climate, hiring an editor before having a clear idea about my target audience seemed quite pointless.
So, my sophomore novel is still waiting, but not impatiently, for my characters know that I wrote their adventure to a happy ending, and that I started to write another story in their universe. The first novel took me almost a decade. The second took half of the time. By induction, I’m cautiously optimistic about completing this one in a couple of years.